The Souls of Black Folk

Today, the Classics Circuit Harlem Renaissance tour begins, and we are pleased to be the first tour stop. We’ll be discussing the seminal nonfiction work The Souls of Black Folk by the scholar and activist W.E.B. Du Bois. Du Bois was born in Massachusetts in 1868 and was the first African-American to earn a PhD from Harvard University.

The Souls of Black Folk, published in 1903, is a collection of 14 sociological essays on race in the United States, particularly the southern U.S. Du Bois touches on issues of poverty, education, post-Civil War reconstruction, black-white relations, and the black church. It includes personal stories of Du Bois’s own experiences teaching and traveling in the South and analysis of the root causes of black poverty.

Teresa: One of the things that struck me most as I was reading this was how relevant some of the discussions are for today. This was particularly true in the essays on education. In “Of the Wings of Atalanta,” Du Bois talks about how important it is that education be about more than economic survival. He says that “the true college will ever have one goal,—not to earn meat, but to know the end of that life which meat nourishes.” But he also says that

of the million black youth, some were fitted to know and some to dig; that some had the capacity of university men, and some the talent and capacity of blacksmiths; and that true training meant neither that all should be college men nor all artisans … And to seek to make the blacksmith a scholar is almost as silly as the more modern scheme of making the scholar a blacksmith; almost, but not quite.

One common debate today in education has to do with whether an academic-oriented education is the right thing for every student. The general tendency is to want every child to go to college, but might there be some who would be happier if they were working in trades that don’t require a college degree? I hear that question asked often in my work as an education journal editor, but I was amazed to see that it was being asked more than 100 years ago.

Jenny: I couldn’t agree more. These essays had tremendous power, not only because they are so incisively and clearly written, but because what they have to say is still so applicable. While it is true that the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s (only about 50 years after this book was published, and only 50 years before we are reading it — think about that!) changed the civil status of African-Americans enormously for the better, we still have a practical cultural and economic segregation for many people that is the legacy of the conditions Du Bois is describing: slavery, sharecropping, ignorance, poverty, and an entirely justifiable lack of faith in the justice system. I kept thinking that these conditions today apply to more than just African-Americans, as well: think of immigrants, for example. I found the entire book both electrifying and heartbreaking.

Teresa: Yes! Although this book is clearly addressing racism—primarily institutional racism—it’s about so much more than that. Du Bois himself talks about how the economic system works against all the poor, not just the black poor. Granted, he quite rightly states that the color line makes the situation worse for African-Americans, but he shows genuine compassion for all workers who are caught in a system that will not allow them to get ahead. Frankly, I was surprised by that because I’d always heard Du Bois characterized as being radically anti-white, but he’s really anti-racism, which is an altogether different thing. He does an excellent job explaining how blacks and whites misunderstand each other and how the best of both races are kept apart.

Jenny: He was, in fact, far more measured and generous of spirit than I would have been in his place, given the blind racism that made his life a misery. He advocates change, but non-violent change; he wants careful, thoughtful education and the rule of law. In his place, I don’t think I could have done the same, especially in the light of the chapter that talks so painfully about the death of his baby son. How bitter — how impossibly bitter — for anyone to have to feel that such a death was perhaps better, so that racism couldn’t darken the child’s life!

The changes Du Bois advocates — education, training, economic understanding, education in citizenship — seem like common sense. I found it helpful to have the historical context that he himself provides in his essay on Booker T. Washington: for more than a decade, black leadership had been encouraging African-Americans to put aside their claims to civil rights and higher education in favor of forming a more solid, land-owning, artisanal economic “base.” But as Du Bois points out, what can you do with money or land if you have no governmental representation, judicial safety, civil voice, or higher notion of what to do with your wealth? Even wealth will disappear under these conditions. I found it fascinating to consider that the African-American heroes we learned about in school were not monolithically in agreement with one another.

Teresa: Most of what I had learned about Du Bois was actually about his disagreements with Booker T. Washington, whose life I’m much more familiar with, having visited his birthplace many times and having read Up from Slavery years ago. I’ve been brought up admiring Washington, and it was interesting to read about the flaws Du Bois saw in Washington’s philosophy. Washington was a man with tremendous personal determination. The story of how he got his education through sheer grit and determination is incredibly inspiring, and I think he expected others to be willing to work as hard as he did.  What I think Washington didn’t recognize, and which Du Bois does, is that not everyone is willing to work that hard for that long, especially when there’s no guarantee of a return.

I wondered if some of the differences in opinion had to do with their differing backgrounds. For Washington, born into slavery in the south, economic independence was a matter of survival; civic equality might seem like a frill to come later. Du Bois, born into freedom in the north, started out with some economic independence and not even much direct experience with racism, so he could see beyond mere survival. For Washington, racism and, sad to say, submission to whites, was a fact of life. Du Bois could see that it didn’t have to be that way.

Jenny: That kind of vision — seeing that although the world is as it is, it doesn’t have to be that way — is the mark of a great thinker, in my opinion. Du Bois had a dream, too, don’t you think? One thing that occurred to me as I was reading, though, was that Du Bois has his blind spots, too. Though this book was published in 1903, a mere 17 years before the 19th Amendment that granted women the right to vote, and right in the middle of rhetoric from powerful speakers and writers like Susan B. Anthony and Carrie Chapman Catt, Du Bois seems completely unconcerned with the state of African-American women. His only concern for them is their chastity: are they promiscuous, or can this be explained away sociologically? Are they “decent” women? Are they regularly raped by white people, and what is the effect of this on the color line? Other than this one issue, he has virtually none of the compassion he has for men who are trapped by poverty, hungering for education, and longing for a voice. While I’m sure this attitude is historically very common, it was interesting to me to see that “universal suffrage” doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone, even to people who themselves are being oppressed.

Teresa: Certainly Du Bois, like everyone, has his blind spots, and men seem to be his main concern, but in “Of the Meaning of Progress” he does write with sympathy of Josie, the young woman who so wanted an education but who ended up having to carry her family’s burdens. It’s true, though, that he does not take the next step and show how her plight is an issue of inequality of the sexes and not just an example of the consequences of racism.

I really appreciated the stories of people like Josie, partly because Du Bois lets the stories speak for themselves. We learn about the need for education from Josie, and we learn about the inadequacy of education in a stacked system from John in “On the Coming of John.” Those stories, I think, carry tremendous power. To be honest, I would have liked a few more of those stories and a little less history and analysis. But overall, this is a remarkable collection of writings. I’m glad I finally read Du Bois for myself.

Jenny: I am, too! But I had the opposite reaction: I felt that Du Bois was a better analyst and essayist than a storyteller. I thought he had less sense of narrative arc than a fiction-writer would, but an incisive and effective blend of rhetoric, fact, and personal experience in his sociological pieces. I cheered aloud several times as I was reading, and in some ways I think I’ve found a new hero. Now the question becomes: what can I do, in my own day and time, to fight racism? I feel grateful to have many resources, including the rest of Du Bois’s writings, to help me.

The Harlem Renaissance continues through the month of February. For more information, visit the Classics Circuit Web site.

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19 Responses to The Souls of Black Folk

  1. Laura says:

    A very interesting analysis! I haven’t read this book yet although it’s sitting on our shelves at home. For the tour I’m reading Langston Hughes’ The Ways of White Folks. Published about 30 years after The Souls of Black Folk, the Hughes is a collection of short stories about racism. I suspect DuBois’s work inspired this book and his approach. It would be interesting to compare and contrast these two works.

  2. rebeccareid says:

    I really would love to read this! It sounds so powerful, especially since you end on the question: what can I do today?

    Thanks for starting the Circuit out with a review of such an important historical piece.

  3. Stefanie says:

    This sounds realy fantastic. I’ve never thought to read it because I figured it was dated, but it sounds as though it is just as relevant today as it was when it was written. Thanks for such a great post!

  4. Aarti says:

    I LOVE joint reviews, especially of books that really make you think and consider your own life and actions. What a great way to begin the Classics Circuit!

    • Teresa says:

      Thanks, Aarti. We love writing them! When we lived in the same area, Jenny and I were always exchanging and discussing books, and this is the next best thing.

  5. Suzanne says:

    Wow — I have some work to do to attempt to equal this very thoughtful post.
    Reading this and my own reading for this circuit has made me realize that I have led a pretty sheltered life and that I have no true idea of the African-American experience.

    • Teresa says:

      Suzanne: Thanks. The book had that effect on me, for sure. It opened my eyes to a lot of things, not just related to the African-American experience but to anyone who finds themselves stuck in a system that’s working against them.

  6. Lindsey says:

    I enjoyed your review! Although this is a minor point, I was interested in what you mentioned regarding his thoughts on education. I saw my brother be treated like he was less intelligent than me (by the schools) because he preferred working with his hands to reading and academic pursuits, and he was constantly pushed to try harder and go to college. But that’s not what would have been right for me. Thankfully, my parents directed him to vo-tech, where he attended auto mechanic classes, saved a ton of money, and was able to get a job he likes and is good at. Some jobs, such as welders, can make six figures without college, yet we treat that as something only stupid people do. That drives me crazy, and it’s interesting that it came up in this work.

    • Teresa says:

      Lindsey: Yes, that point resonated with me in a big way. My father and brother are both plumbers, both very intelligent and able to make a good living, so I know exactly where you’re coming from. I loved that Du Bois wanted everyone to have the option to find the work that suited them, whether as a scholar or a blacksmith.

  7. BrownGirl says:

    This is an awesome review. I love this commentator style used. My favorite point is Teresa’s grasp of the difference in Washington’s and Du Bois’s ideologies. The whole review is spot on. Well done.

    • Teresa says:

      Thanks, Browngirl! I was so glad to finally get Du Bois’s perspective on these questions after having heard so much about Washington over the years. It was fascinating to think about the differences and the reasons behind those differences.

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  9. Jason Gignac says:

    It’s interesting, your comparison between Washington and Du Bois – there was a third strain too, that spoke for more radical agitation against injustice, and it’s really interesting to see those threads continue right through the civil rights movement – the differences between, say, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, for instance. It’s something I’d really like to learn more about.

    Your note about the disconnect with the women’s movement is interesting to me to, particularly since the Abolition and Women’s Suffrage movements were so closely linked in the 19th century. I wonder, do you know what Du Bois’ attitudes about women’s suffrage were, aside from his not bringing it up, really, in the book?

    • Teresa says:

      Jason, I’d always actually thought that Du Bois was part of that radical strain, and I wonder how his ideas evolved over time–if he got more radical perhaps.

      And I don’t know anything about Du Bois’s opinions toward women’s suffrage were. It would be an interesting connection to explore.

  10. tea says:

    Love the ideas about education. It’s more important to learn, in college, how to live life than only how to bring in the bacon. So important, I think.

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